And so the Obama administration induced Israelis and Palestinians to reenter peace talks Monday, after three years of suspension that followed many more years of paralysis. This latest effort to get two hostile peoples to divide up the same dot on the map somehow recalls the line from Julius Caesar: "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?"
The accents are still the same; the state is still unborn; and the chances for success still seem as meager. But it is true that a great deal else has changed. On the positive side, the talks are being pushed hard by Secretary of State John Kerry, who passionately wants to leave a diplomatic legacy, and chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, whose entire political career has been built around her fervent belief that time is running out and a two-state solution is critical to Israel's survival. Hamas, the chief obstacle to peace in the past, is a weaker relative to Fatah (the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank while Hamas oversees Gaza) thanks to the recent ouster of Hamas's chief ally, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. And perhaps there will be more room to negotiate an interim solution, because the very concept of statehood is becoming somewhat more elastic in the region, given the post-Arab Spring stresses and strains tearing at the center of countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
On the negative side—and when it comes to Mideast peace, that's still the side that stands out—the issues remain nearly intractable, especially the status of East Jerusalem. Israel is led by a mulish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite his goodwill release of 104 Palestinian prisoners refuses to halt settlement construction and has said Jerusalem will never be divided (while Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas insists no Palestinian state is possible without East Jerusalem as its capital). The rise of radical Islamist parties throughout the region will only further radicalize Hamas, weakened though it is, and prevent Fatah from conceding too much.
Some critics see the peace effort as somewhat out of touch with the times, considering everything else that is happening in the region. "I really can't appreciate what the administration is doing: Egypt and Syria are in turmoil, Iran is going nuclear, and Secretary Kerry is spending time on the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio?" says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA expert and conservative commentator on the region at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Makes no sense whatsoever,"
Perhaps, however, it does. Apart from seeking to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program—the next big item on the agenda, considering the recent election of a moderate president—there is not a lot the administration can do to affect the outcome in other parts of the Mideast, especially the now-destabilized states bordering Israel. "There is little the United States can do to positively influence events in Syria" despite the debate over U.S. military intervention, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, perhaps the most knowledgeable U.S. diplomat in the region, wrote recently of Syria in the YaleGlobal journal. "This will be a long war." Similarly in Egypt, events are largely out of Washington's hands, despite the leverage of $1.5 billion in military aid. And there is simply no welcome outcome in either country. Washington wants to support neither a coup nor a radical Islamist government in Cairo. It wants neither an autocrat like Bashar al-Assad nor rebel jihadists in charge in Damascus. In Iraq, the U.S., having withdrawn all troops, is equally impotent to quell what may be a resurgent civil war there.
And so that leaves tinkering on the margins of the Mideast, which is what the Palestinian issue, sadly, has become. Says Gerecht: "The principal reason this administration, like so many others, turns to the 'peace process' is because it's easier procedurally than other problems in the region. The Israelis will always welcome us; Fatah has no choice but to see us. Fatah is irrelevant without Hamas—at least until elections tell us otherwise."
Still, it may help that an administration that has long been criticized for remaining outside events in the Mideast is at last seeking to take a leading hand in one of them.